When we make the inevitable historical comparisons to these 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, most will naturally do so on the offensive side of the ball. This is understandable for several reasons, from the relative ease in finding offensive statistical comparison points to the simple visibility of the Dubs’ offensive dominance to even the casual fan. You don’t need advanced basketball knowledge to visually pick up how stunning this team is when they have the ball.
What about when they don’t have it, though? Interim coach Mike Brown recently offered a unique comparison point.
“I’ll never forget, back when I was the head coach of the Cavaliers, we were playing the old Pistons teams with Larry Brown coaching the team – they had a veteran team, you talk about Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and those guys. The thing that I felt that bothered us a lot when we played them [was] they talked their defense through quite a bit. One time down the floor, in a pick-and-roll situation, they’d switch it. Then the next time down the floor, they may blitz it. Next time down the floor, they may push it to the baseline. The following time, they may show. To be able to mix up your defense throughout the course of the game, whether it’s on ball screens or pindowns, is something that can be to the defense’s advantage – but it’s hard to do, in my opinion, unless you have a veteran team that has a good feel. When you talk about Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, to start with – David West inside. We have some intelligent veterans that are able to talk our defense through. So we’ll mix up our coverages. You watch us – we’ll switch sometimes, we won’t switch at other times.”
There’s a lot to digest there. If comparing your team directly to one of the consensus best defenses ever sounds a tad audacious, that’s because it is – but it’s also completely reasonable in this case.
There are some statistical similarities between those dominant mid-2000s Pistons and these Warriors, even beyond their mutual elite finishes year after year. Both teams forced a ton of turnovers and blocked a ton of shots, and both consistently rated near the bottom of the league in fouls committed, a dangerous combination.
But the real similarities went deeper, and Brown hits on them. In case you worry this is a bit of shameless self-promotion, know that opponents – including some who were around for those same Pistons teams – feel the same way.
“He’s comparing them to a great defense, and I would agree,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, recently the victim of a Warriors blitzkrieg. “One of the guys on my staff was an assistant then, Igor Kokoshkov, so we’ve talked about those teams. We’ve talked about the balance of those teams. He’s talked about the communication, so it’s something I’m actually familiar with in a tangible way… You talk about a team with a high IQ, and you think about offense. [But] they have a defensive IQ that’s, you know, Mensa.”
Snyder’s Jazz got a healthy dose of the modern version of this in round two. The Warriors’ switching scheme on the ball has been relatively evident to the discerning hoops fan for a few years now, but they do it just as well away from the ball:
That play is a Jazz staple, a simple little action that nonetheless confounds many unprepared defenses. They begin in a HORNS alignment (a ball-handler at the top of the key, with two players in screening positions at both elbows), and Gordon Hayward comes up as if to set a screen for ball-handler Shelvin Mack:
Before he gets there, though, Hayward slips the screen and immediately takes a new flare screen from Rudy Gobert – the idea is to get Hayward’s man, Klay Thompson in this case, to lean too far the wrong way anticipating the ball screen.
Normally, this is tough for the defense. If the big man guarding Gobert doesn’t recognize what’s happening, Hayward gets a wide open three. Even if the big does recognize it and jumps out to Hayward, the defense often gives up an open rolling lane to Gobert amid the confusion. Best case scenario, the defense usually ends up with a slower big man switched onto Hayward, who can then go to work.
Not for the Warriors, though. They simply switch Draymond Green, a human Swiss Army knife, onto Hayward and Thompson onto Gobert, and the play is dead. With half the shot clock already gone, the Warriors aren’t worried about Thompson’s ability to handle the bigger Gobert for a few seconds, especially with a smart and long helping scheme around him. Thompson even has the savvy to sag way off Gobert and grab the steal during Hayward’s resulting drive.
Some of what Brown is talking about is simply personnel, and Green is the foundation. He’s long drawn comparisons to both of the anchors for those Pistons teams.
These comparisons aren’t new, of course. The similarities to Ben Wallace are pretty obvious, from an undersized stature to an emotional flare for the dramatic. Green has outwardly discussed (and written about) the inspiration he’s drawn from the Pistons’ former afro-toting defensive star, and even if they differ in their precise strengths and roles, it’s easy to see. The comparisons to Rasheed are perhaps less common, but just as apt.
“Ben Wallace is a little different anchoring those defenses, but the communication on the perimeter, the ability to switch,” Snyder said. “I think Rasheed Wallace was probably one of the great defensive communicators that’s ever played the game. But that was something, at least according to Igor too, that we’ve discussed – I look at that and I see Draymond Green a little bit. His ability to communicate and kind of orchestrate.”
Like with many things, we think of “freedom” for elite players almost exclusively on the offensive end – the better a guy is, the more leeway he has to take matters into his own hands and deviate from the plan to help the team. The Warriors “plan” less than virtually anyone, playing through feel far more often, but that same theme is still evident for Draymond on the defensive end.
“He basically has carte blanche, for the most part,” Brown said. “Just like Steph – if he wants to cross halfcourt and pull it from 55 feet, he can do the same. You have guys that are effective in certain areas of the game – you kind of give them a little bit more freedom or rope to do what they can do to help us win the ballgame.”
Green sets the baseline, but the whole thing still wouldn’t have the same overall effect without several other high-IQ guys on the court at all times. With the freedom to make changes on the fly and the hyper-intelligent Green constantly barking out little hints, the Warriors will cycle through each of several coverages Brown mentioned – all within a given game, quarter or even a single sequence.
Here’s David West showing Mack a quick blitz when it looks like Mack might have a step on his man, Ian Clark. Notice how seamlessly Green stays within reach of Gobert, temporarily free as the roll man, before leaping back out to corral his own man, Joe Johnson. Then West makes a great individual play to rip the ball from Gobert for a steal.
Sometimes, they’ll show the blitz, but audible out of it within instants. West is all set to make the same play here, but the moment he notices Green getting over the ball screen more easily than expected, West scurries back to his man and gives Draymond all the time he needs to jack the rock from a befuddled Johnson.
They don’t always need to be so aggressive, though, and opposing personnel plays a big role. When Utah’s Joe Ingles was the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets, for instance, the Warriors generally played a softer coverage: a brief show by the big man, but then a drop back.
The Dubs know Ingles isn’t much of a threat to pull up from midrange, and prefers to either pass or find the layup as long as they keep him from launching a three. JaVale McGee shows him just enough of a body to stop the triple, but then relaxes, allowing Iguodala to stay home on Hayward in the corner and grab the steal when Ingles anticipates more middle help from Iggy:
Hell, they’ll mix it up within the same play depending on how well the screen was set. Look at how Durant and West are all set to play a basic drop-back scheme here on a Johnson-Gobert pick-and-roll, but when Gobert’s second try at the screen is much more effective, West aborts the plan and simply switches onto him, generating yet another turnover.
The Warriors are one of just a handful of teams since those Pistons capable of playing this way based on personnel, but make no mistake about one thing: It takes so much more than just a bunch of long, versatile guys to do this. The collective IQ for this team defense is among the highest in recent memory, and maybe in the game’s history.
Making it even more remarkable is the lack of a traditional rim protector on the floor at virtually all times. McGee has the profile, but he’s a wild jumper who can be moved out of position with basic craft, and he commits way too many goaltends and no-chance leaps that put him out of position. Zaza Pachulia is one of the worst rim protectors in the league for his size.
That really only leaves Green (an elite and thoroughly underrated rim protector, but not in the traditional sense), West (a converted power forward) and Durant, who took a big defensive leap this season that largely went unnoticed amid several other bigger storylines. Durant blocked a higher percentage of opponent shots this year than ever before, and allowed a respectable opponent percentage at the rim, per SportVU figures.
“Just me personally, I’ve never been a huge believer in trying to go get a shot-blocker,” Brown said. “If you have one, great. But I feel like if you have guys who are intelligent, guys who are willing to cover for one another, guys who understand the rule of verticality, then in my opinion, that’s just as good as going and getting a guy that can block shots. And I think all of our guys have a good feel for using the rule of verticality, and then covering for one another.”
Brown’s personal beliefs aside, this is the largest difference between this group and those Pistons defenses.
Those teams had Ben Wallace in a Draymond-ish role, providing a mixture of help-side and on-ball rim protection. But they also had Rasheed as the final line of defense in an era where the power of the three-pointer wasn’t yet fully realized, and the list of bigs who could ever reliably move Rasheed away from his post in the paint was basically Dirk Nowitzki and no one else.
That the Warriors are drawing these comparisons, and that they aren’t ludicrous, is an even greater feat within this context. There’s no Sheed to clean up mistakes; even if there was, there are so many more matchups that could cause problems for these types in today’s game. The biggest area where the two elite defenses diverge is probably the single most impressive part of this Warriors group.
As the playoffs wear on, there’s a real chance these comparisons become the only decent ones left. There just aren’t any contemporary analogies that make sense, or capture the full force of what this team does on both ends. Any team that manages an unlikely four victories in seven over this group will not only have beaten a historically great attack, but also one of the smartest and most unique defenses ever assembled.
NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer
Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.
In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.
The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.
Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.
Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them.
That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game.
Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.
While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.
As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.
That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.
Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.
But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte
No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.
Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.
Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.
But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.
While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.
With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.
Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.
The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.
Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.
Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.
As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.
The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.
It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.
Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.
The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.
He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.
NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26
Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.
This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.
When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.
That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.
Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.
The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.
Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.
Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.
Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.
This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.
The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.
Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.
Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.
Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.
Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.
While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.
Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner
So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.
Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.
Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.
Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.
Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward
It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.
However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.
Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.
With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!